Butler County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Rick Bucheit was in the passenger seat of an armored tactical vehicle and hours into a Liberty Twp. standoff with a man holding a boy hostage when he was nearly shot.
Donald Gazaway had fired rounds from the apartment in the usually quiet neighborhood several times in the January 2018 incident. Bullets flew into the windshield right in front of Bucheit’s face. Because of the bullet-proof glass, he survived.
“It got my attention, that’s for sure,” Rick Bucheit said.
The department veteran said he had never been shot at on the job, but he knew right away what it was. One of the bullets hit the metal of the vehicle, making sparks fly.
“Obviously, if it had not been for the armored car, it could have been a much different situation,” Rick Bucheit said.
The dangers of the job, especially in SWAT and standoff situations, were brought to the forefront this month with the fatal shooting of Clermont County Sheriff’s Detective Bill Brewer, allegedly at the hands of a man who was barricaded in an apartment for several hours before Brewer was killed and another officer was wounded.
Several standoffs have unfolded in Butler County in the past year that ended without the loss of law enforcement life but that highlighted their dangers.
Gazaway was eventually taken into custody after 30 hours, and the 10-year-old boy he was using and a human shield also survived to testify at his trial. Gazaway is serving 41 1/2 years in prison.
In June 2018, James Geran held officers at bay while holed up in a Trenton townhouse after killing a woman the night before. He let two hostages go before shooting a woman in the residence and turning the gun on himself. Geran survived the suicide attempt and is now serving a prison sentence of life without the possibly of parole.
Last month, a man fired shots at the Hamilton-Fairfield SWAT team for hours before taking his own life at a Fairfield home. The same armored vehicle — the Lenco BearCat — that was shot by Gazaway was also hit by gun fire in the Fairfield standoff.
Rick Bucheit said he does not dwell on the close calls, even after the tragic loss of a of an area officer, but he does often remember the bravery of the young boy who was held by Gazaway and how “it could have gone worse.”
Hamilton Police Chief Craig Bucheit, Rick Bucheit’s brother, said training, the right people for the job and equipment are key to resolving SWAT incidents without anyone getting hurt.
“In a situation that you have an individual barricaded and is threatening violence, it can be a very dangerous situation for the public and certainly for the officers who are called to respond,” Craig Bucheit said. “The shots that he fired at the officers who were gathered on the scene (at Gazaway incident) … We are just very fortunate that no one was injured. I would attribute that to police and their ability to resolve. And the training.”
The armored vehicle at both scenes was a critical piece that protected officers and allowed the situation to be resolved in the manner that it was, he said.
The pressure of the job is “extraordinary,” Craig Bucheit said.
“(SWAT) calls for officers who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way in some very dangerous situations to protect the public. If we have men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line. We owe it to them to make sure they have the best training to do that job.”
Middletown police Major David Birk, who was a longtime Special Response Team member, said training for different situations, such as when a hostage is involved or the suspect suicidal, is very important and has evolved.
Not only are members of the SRT training for imagined scenarios, officers also watch video of situations from body cameras and other resources.
“Twenty years ago you didn’t have that,” Birk said. “And they are seeing officers just like them in situations that have actually happened.”
Birk said the goal is to always end the situation without anyone getting hurt, but preparation for what might have to be done is needed.
Middletown police Major Scott Reeve was blunt in his description: “It’s a violent, dangerous job. We train and train, but until you are put in the situation, nobody really knows what they will do.”
Fairfield Police Chief Steve Maynard, who was part of the SWAT team that ended the standoff with Gazaway and carried the young hostage to safety, said “it is an inherently dangerous.” He noted there is no backup for the SWAT team
Maynard was the team commander when officials became concerned that the armed Gazaway was going to harm his hostage. He put a team together to enter the garage when Gazaway requested water. The goal was to try to stop Gazaway with a clear shot if they got one.
“It was the most difficult thing I have done in my career, to hand pick who was going in, knowing they could have been shot and killed. We didn’t know what we were walking into or how it was going to end,” said Maynard, who was one of the five who took on the mission.
Ultimately, that shot was not taken, because Gazaway held the boy close to his body.
The death of an area officer such as Brewer weighs heavily on fellow officers and is “devastating and demoralizing,” Maynard said.
“I do think we as officers need to do a better job talking about our feelings after situations occur,” he said. “There is a lot of debriefing about what went right and wrong, but not much of talking about how it affects us personally. That can really start to wear on officers.”